Intelligence “Failures:” Security and the Myth of Omniscience

Military Spies
Note – this article by World Can’t Wait Steering Committee member Dennis Loo first appeared on our site in January 2010. Because its analysis has ongoing relevance, particularly in light of the revelations of the exponential growth of the “National Security State following September 11, 2001 in the Washington Post, we are reposting it.

By Dennis Loo 

We want to be able to search everything, so we could see if Mohammed Atta ever got a parking ticket in Roselle. You can’t connect the dots if you can’t see them. -- Richard Kelly, New Jersey Regional Operations Intelligence Center’s Director
[E]ach day [the NSA] collects four times the volume of information stored in the Library of Congress – Matthew Aid, Intelligence Historian
[If a terrorist incident has a] one percent chance of occurring, then it need[s] to be treated as a certainty. – Dick Cheney As ridiculous as Cheney’s one percent doctrine sounds, his approach is that of our government, under both Republicans and Democrats, in gathering information about possible threats.
I call it the myth of omniscience.
Knowing that Mohammed Atta got a parking ticket in Roselle would be meaningless information even if they already strongly suspected that Atta was an important figure in a pending terrorist plot. What would this piece of information have done for them? As it happens, and as the whole world knows, US intelligence failed to finger Atta as a player in an upcoming attack. Having more information about Atta wouldn’t have helped. The problem was more basic.
Our government’s directive to the over two hundred thousand people engaged in intelligence work since 9/11 is that all leads must be followed up. Their suspects’ list has now more than 500,000 names on it and it’s growing daily.
Talk about a wild goose chase!
This makes for an interesting kind of symmetry: our government is guilty of suffocating people with water – aka waterboarding - and our government for its part is drowning in data as a result of drowning people to obtain “data.” One of the reasons why waterboarding was initiated was because top Bush officials insisted that actionable intelligence be produced tout suite. And everyone amongst this merry band of torturers/interrogators was and is convinced that their detainees are all in cahoots with Al-Qaeda. Those are the “right” answers they get when they put the screws on detainees.
The failure to interdict the Nigerian briefs bomber is not attributable to a lack of information. The problem is that there was and is too much information of the wrong kind.
You can’t connect the dots if you’re covering your map with millions upon millions of dots. You cannot connect the dots when you make no distinction between useful data and useless data and when you’re constantly escalating the amount of useless data that you are inputting.
The problem here might be described as a problem of the noise to signal ratio. In receiving radio broadcasts, for instance, it is hard to hear the signal when there is too much noise.
The redundancies in information gathering and the warrantless surveillance over everyone, with all of these data shielded from public scrutiny by self-serving claims that disclosing any of this would “harm national security,” and that it’s all “state secrets,” are producing a cacophony of ever more deafening noise.
By treating everyone as a suspect and marking every activity and association as suspicious and necessary to compile and track, the government is intermingling irrelevant and useless information with actual terrorist plots. This is the equivalent of taking haute cuisine and mixing it with tons of sewage.
The path our government is taking is doomed to fail again and again. We are the ones who pay for those failures, along with, and most especially, the victims of our country’s unjust wars and policies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and who knows where next.
There is a reason why our government continues to amass more and more information, producing paralysis in their ranks. It’s not due to stupidity on their part. It’s because it is their view that everyone must be treated as a potential suspect.
The approach that everyone should be subjected to surveillance is not only the wet dream of police and intelligence personnel. It’s the product of public order policies that date from the 1970s worldwide that have supplanted the previous paradigm that people who are guilty of something should be tracked and everyone else should be left alone. In this brave new world, the government believes that, for example, you are a “low-level terrorist” if you exercise your right to speak out and protest.
Obama has said that he has the right to hold people indefinitely even if they have been acquitted in a trial. The new Democratic President, in other words, has declared that he has the power of those in The Minority Report who believed that they could tell when somebody was going to do something. “You may have been proven innocent, but we know that you’re guilty.”
If everyone’ s a suspect, then you can’t devote the necessary attention and resources to the people who really merit attention.
The problem we face then as a society is that our political and business leaders have introduced a new norm in which if possibly, maybe, conceivably, by the remotest chance, you might do something someone else doesn’t like, if you do something that can be construed as trying to affect government policy, then you are a TERRORIST.
Here is the USA PATRIOT Act’s definition for a new crime dubbed “domestic terrorism:” “acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws … [if such acts] … appear to be intended …to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.”
Doesn’t this make an overly enthusiastic or aggressive lobbyist a “domestic terrorist”?
When Bush falsely claimed that if we didn’t invade Iraq that we’d be hit by WMD from Saddam Hussein, wasn’t he then intimidating the nation and Congress into giving him the OK to attack Iraq? He was, therefore, a domestic terrorist.
The Patriot Act’s definition for terrorism is, of course, only applied to those that the government doesn’t like. But if they are allowed to get away with this scam, then who really is terrorizing the nation and the world? It isn’t only Al-Qaeda…